Local Talent

A Fiendish Conversation with Justin Huertas

The playwright and actor shares the origin story of his superhero musical Lizard Boy.

By Seth Sommerfeld March 27, 2015

Justin Huertas (center) and the rest of the Lizard Boy cast ready for their superpowered journey.

Lizard Boy is just your average, run-of-the-mill, coming-of-age love story about a young gay Seattleite struggling with his identity and his lizard superpowers that also happens to be a cello-based rock musical. (We know what you’re thinking: Jeez, another one?) It's part Spring Awakening, part Scott Pilgrim, and part Ra Ra Riot. Local playwright and actor Justin Huertas spent years crafting this way-outside-the-box tale for Seattle Repertory Theatre. Currently in previews, Lizard Boy officially begins its world premiere production next Wednesday, April 1, and runs through May 2 in the Rep's Leo K. Theatre.

For our latest Fiendish Conversation, we chatted with Huertas about Lizard Boy's origin story, Spider-Man Turn-Off the Dark, and the joy of Pepsi.

How has Lizard Boy changed or evolved since our interview a few years ago for Points of Reference?

The structure basically stayed the same. I think what was fun about the past couple of years was trying to figure out what exactly this production would look like and feel like. In the first year, I wrote this awesome comic book, superhero story. And we were reading it at music stands with our instruments, underscoring ourselves. But over the course of the past couple of years, we talked about, “Well, do we project the graphic novel on a screen behind the actors and we act out what’s happening on the screens? Or is it like a radio play?” And I think that’s sort of the thing that we’ve been able to narrow down; what exactly is the visual vocabulary of this show. And what Brandon Ivie is doing as the director is pretty amazing. We’re basically a full rock band who’s telling the story. We’re underscoring ourselves while we’re in a scene. We’re using the instruments and everything as props and integrating all the sound stuff that we do into the scenes.

Lots of people complain about an oversaturation of superheros in pop culture these days, especally in movies. How do you Lizard Boy fits into the puzzle given that context and some of the recent backlash?

I find that very strange just because the genre itself is growing and turning into a lot of different things. We’re finding out there’s so many different ways to experience comic books in the movies, and I think that that's really, really awesome. What I have personally never really seen that much is how we can experience a comic book superhero story onstage. I’ve seen the trilogy of superhero plays that Annex did, like Alectro: Issue #1. I’m so fascinated by how to make stories like this possible onstage. The way Annex did their special effects: people moving things with their minds and super strength and blowing things up; action sequences. I just thought it was completely brilliant. But I just don’t see it enough. This isn’t necessarily a genre people think, “Oh, that would totally be a great stage play!” I think that’s what’s really fun about Lizard Boy.We embrace the big hugeness, the comic book-ness of our story. We’re not trying to bring it too much down to Earth, because it is a bigger than life kind of experience. I just feel like it’s a really cool thing that you don’t get to see onstage a lot.

I don’t think the whole Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark situation did anything to help superheroes onstage.

No, it did not! (Laughs) Oh man. Like, there were some good ideas. I saw one of the last shows before they went on their little hiatus to rewrite and direct the show. So I got to see what I called “the Julie Taymor proper Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.” (Laughs) There were really cool ideas, like the way that she incorporated circus-y things to show superhuman things. That (show’s main flaw) was the story. Also, I guess, the special effects that were hurting actors. That's wasn’t cool either. I do wonder if maybe that’s a reason why some people are kind of apprehensive about doing superheroes onstage.

It's kind of hard to describe Lizard Boy. Do you have an elevator pitch about it figured out yet?

What I have said is, “It’s a comic book superhero story told by a folk rock band,” and that’s usually gets a “What It’s hard to get. The director, Brandon Ivie, his elevator pitch is pretty fun. He says, “It’s comic books meets the musical Once meets Grindr.” That’s usually like “Wait. What?” He and I both admit we haven’t figured out how exactly to talk about this show because it feels so weird and new that we’re not sure how to ground it into something that people already know.

Do you have any pre-show routines?

I always drink a Pepsi. (Laughs) That, for some reason, is always a thing. I was never really vocally trained. I just grew up kind of singing, and it shows, because before a show, I always have a Pepsi. Sometimes, when I have to hit the high notes in any show, I’m always like, “Oh, I got to grab a Pepsi first. Hang on a second.” That’s my weird thing. 

You began working on this project with former Seattle Rep artistic director Jerry Manning before he passed away. How did the show sort of come into being? What's Lizard Boy's origin story?

The whole thing started… the commission at the Rep started when Jerry Manning saw me play cello. He didn’t know that I played cello, so he commissioned me to basically write myself a show. He said, “Hey, I have this image of you on the Leo K stage playing cello. And I don’t know what that play is, but I want you to write it.”

He commissioned me to write a diary that I sent to Andrea Allen, who was the director of education here. Basically, I would send an email everyday from my experience on tour. She would organize those emails and help me build a one-man show out of those emails. And one of those things that she prompted me on writing. She would prompt me and say, like, “Write about your family. Write about your favorite people on the tour with you.”

She asked me to write my coming out story, and I was so… I didn’t know what to do about that, because my coming out story is so boring. It’s just basically, like: I came out? And everyone was kinda like, “Yeah, we knew that already.” It was just not a big deal at all. So I told Andrea, “Well, it’s boring. So I’m going to add superpowers to it just to make it more interesting for me to write.” That’s what I ended up doing. I wrote a story. It’s basically my coming out story plus I have lizard skin, and I’m having trouble fitting in because of my lizard skin, but I come out and no one cares. And then as time went on, Andrea was diagnosed with breast cancer and I kept working off and on with her on the show, and then Jerry took the project over. And when we were trying to decide where we wanted it go, he found that coming out story, and was super interested because it turns out he’s also a comic book nerd.

My whole thing growing up has been with what I see on television and what I see in superheroes and in comic books, I’ve always seen Spider-Man, who’s my favorite character, is Peter Parker. And Peter Parker is always played by this handsome Caucasian guy. And I’ve always thought to myself, “Well I would never be cast as Peter Parker because I’m this short brown kid.” (Laughs) And so a lot of the impetus for writing a story about a guy who doesn’t fit in because of his skin was really about me growing up really thinking that I could never be a superhero because I don’t look like the people who are superheroes. It's really fun to explore that and then to have this character realize that he totally can be a hero.

Lizard Boy
Thru May 2, Seattle Repertory Theatre, $32–$52

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